Beverly D'Angelo Has No Regrets

The Upper Arlington native never achieved the Hollywood superstardom she probably deserved. But she made the most of every role, including the one she played in real life: a woman defined by love.

Peter Tonguette
Beverly D'Angelo at her Los Angeles home

“Here’s the story of my family,” Beverly D’Angelo tells me. “I grew up in a household that was based on one thing: love.” 

It is mid-July, and I am listening to the actress, singer and native Upper Arlingtonian recount her life. She talks about her parents—still famous in certain circles of old Columbus: former WBNS executive and all-around media bigwig Gene D’Angelo and his wife, Priscilla. “I grew up witnessing an amazing love affair,” Beverly says with the flair for the dramatic that I will come to recognize. 

When you write about the movies as I do, it’s a depressing fact of life that stars—even really big ones—rarely live up to their on-screen personas. The exceptions stand out: When I interviewed him a few years ago, Robert Redford had that same charm and sharp perception that we expect from him on-screen. So did Warren Beatty, who, though he never actually agreed to an interview with me, exuded a certain shambling, distracted magnetism in a brief phone call. 

Beverly D’Angelo, though, is the biggest outlier. If you’ve seen her in her best roles—as a hippie in the musical “Hair” or as Patsy Cline in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or as Chevy Chase’s foil in the Vacation comedies—then you already have a good sense of what she’s really like: She’s smart as a whip, quick with a comeback, by turns emotional, funny, passionate. She is fond of saying: “Everything I’ve done is because I’ve loved someone.” 

She tells me this over the phone, speaking from her Los Angeles home, where the coronavirus lockdown seems to have put her in a reflective mood, eager to talk about her life and loves, personal and professional. I have a list of probing questions in front of me, but I don’t refer to them too much. D’Angelo is something of an open book, going to surprising places I might not have asked about. At the same time, her excitement about life—who she’s known, what she wants to do, and, yes, even where she came from—is contagious. When I ask if she remembers some of her haunts back home in Ohio, she exclaims: “The Chef-O-Nette! The Goodie Shop! Are you kidding?” 

In the five decades since D’Angelo left Upper Arlington behind—at the earliest possible opportunity, as she tells it—she has fostered an image as a rebel. She blazed her trail as a singer in Canada, appeared in a rock ’n’ roll version of “Hamlet” on Broadway, starred in five Vacation movies, married (and divorced) an Italian duke, became, at 49, the mother to twins fathered by Al Pacino, and took parts in many so-so movies mainly distinguished by her presence. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, she’s plotting her latest project: a one-woman autobiographical multimedia show in which she will try to explain it all. In fact, I feel as though she’s done just that by the time I hang up from that initial interview—two hours after I picked up the phone. 

***

D’Angelo’s screen identity is bawdy but cultivated, passionate yet unafraid of being the butt of a joke. “She has great, really complicated qualities,” says Stephanie Zacharek, the film critic of? Time magazine. “She’s really earthy in some ways, but she’s also very sophisticated.” Despite such strengths, D’Angelo’s career—not as distinguished as those of peers like Jessica Lange or Debra Winger—has been a source of some regret for her admirers. In 1992, the late Pauline Kael, the legendary ?New Yorker film critic, summed up the consensus view, saying, “She’s really a symbol of what’s wrong with movies right now. How could an actress so beautiful and talented not get cast in better films? God, is it really possible that people like some of the women they cast nowadays more than Beverly D’Angelo?” 

There were, of course, good parts. Her performance as Patsy Cline in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” landed her a Golden Globe nomination—what should have been the first of loads of nominations and awards. But D’Angelo was never again nominated for a Golden Globe, and never, ever nominated for an Oscar. “Part of it was me,” she says today. “I resisted being branded. To this day I do. It’s very, very difficult for me to identify myself in a way that feels constrictive.” 

Instead, D’Angelo made odd choices and left turns. In 1983, after “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she signed up to appear in a raucous comedy starring Chevy Chase as suburbanite Clark Griswold, “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” The movie racked up enormous box-office receipts, and D’Angelo’s performance as Ellen Griswold, Clark’s level-headed but pugnacious spouse, personified the prototypical movie mom for a generation. There was a trio of sequels, plus a reboot. “I know she made a ton of them and people always kind of say, ‘Oh you know, poor Beverly D’Angelo—stuck in those comedies,’” Zacharek says. “But she’s really good in them. … I’m not crazy about Chevy Chase in general, so to me, she makes those films so watchable and enjoyable.” 

D’Angelo took the work seriously, modeling Ellen in the Vacation comedies on Priscilla and even incorporating her mother’s full name in the last film in the series, 1997’s “Vegas Vacation.” When Clark and Ellen renew their vows, she gives her name as Ellen Priscilla Ruth Smith Griswold. “Ellen is the devoted wife—the thick and thin,” D’Angelo says. 

D’Angelo’s 1981 marriage—her only—to a member of Italian nobility, a duke named Lorenzo Salviati, also contributed to her blasé attitude about career advancement. She told ?People ?magazine that she met Salviati the previous year after attending a series of parties, the sort where “you carry a spare cocktail dress and get home a day later.” For D’Angelo, though, becoming a duchess—seeing firsthand “deep, heavy-duty, multigenerational wealth”—made jockeying for position in nouveau riche Hollywood even less enticing. “I lived a life of royalty,” she says. “I’d come back to Hollywood and I’d see all these people striving to get a Bentley and trying to speak mangled French to order something in a fancy restaurant—and I’d think, ‘I have this.’” The marriage lasted 15 years. 

Fellow actors sing her praises. “She’s thoroughly enjoyable,” says actor Michael O’Keefe, who co-starred with D’Angelo in a farce directed by “A Hard Day’s Night” helmer Richard Lester, 1984’s “Finders Keepers.” “She’s hilarious. She’s completely whacked-out, in the right way.” But marquee movies remained out of grasp. When Hollywood made a whole movie revolving around Patsy Cline, 1985’s “Sweet Dreams,” they cast Jessica Lange. A pattern was starting to emerge: Beverly D’Angelo was more interesting and inventive than the movies that surrounded her. But Zacharek says that’s OK. “Every time she shows up, she just opens up this little bit of magic,” she says. “And when you think someone has done that, really during the course of a long career, that’s actually valuable.” 

***

Not that movie stardom was top on the list of D’Angelo’s goals anyway. When she was a teenager, she just wanted to be a cheerleader. 

The second oldest—and only daughter—of Gene and Priscilla’s four children, D’Angelo and her family were longtime residents of the wealthy, WASPy suburb of Upper Arlington. Naturally, D’Angelo tried out for the ultimate wealthy, WASPy activity as a sophomore at Upper Arlington High School: cheerleading. She felt pretty good about her chances, too. 

“My audition was great,” D’Angelo remembers today. “I got everybody so excited. My jumps were good. I was really made to be a cheerleader. I was so cute and everything.” 

But it was not to be: The shoo-in was named a mere alternate. “I think—and it’s just my theory—but I think the reason that I was made an alternate cheerleader, and not the big-deal cheerleader, was because, statistically speaking, there’s always a cheerleader that gets knocked up,” D’Angelo says. “They probably looked at me like, ‘That’s the one.’” 

Her story begins at the Beverly Manor Apartments, where her parents were living at the time of her birth in November 1951. Family lore has it that her first name was inspired by the building, but she also heard that she was named after a drummer who had been a friend of her father’s. She prefers the second version. 

In August 1949, Gene—a first-generation Italian-American who first made his living as a musician—and some buddies got dressed up to go to one of Upper Arlington’s swimming pools. There, the fellas reckoned, they would encounter wealthy, attractive members of the opposite sex. “He walks in, zoot-suited up, to that swimming pool and sees my mother,” Beverly says. “He said the bathing suit was gold. She said it was silver. They both told me this story many, many times. He walked up to her, and he said, ‘Are you seeing anybody?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, a couple of guys.’” 

It was not so hard to believe: Besides being beautiful, Priscilla Ruth Smith was born to a prominent old family. Her father, Howard Dwight Smith, was the architect who dreamt up the design of Ohio Stadium and other prominent structures around town. She had graduated two years earlier from Smith College, where she studied the violin. The couple eloped four months after the poolside encounter. 

After plying his trade as a musician for the first seven years of Beverly’s life, Gene shifted gears in 1955, entering the broadcasting business and eventually rising to prominence as the chairman and president of WBNS-TV. Gene’s success improved the family’s station, and while the children were encouraged to be creative, a certain dull conformity seeped in. “We purposely, growing up, would all buy the same clothes,” D’Angelo says. “We wore our hair the same. We spoke the same. We ate the same.” 

While an Upper Arlington High School student, D’Angelo spent a summer in Italy. When she returned home, her suitcase was affixed with a sticker reading “Make Love, Not War.” The experience opened her eyes to the world beyond suburban Columbus, and it felt suffocating to return home. “It was like, if somebody had shown you how to fly, and then you were locked in a cage,” she says. 

Her mother counseled her: “You’re soul-searching, but you don’t even have a soul yet.” Profoundly glum, she transferred to Whetstone High School for her senior year. Mostly, though, she lost herself in magazines and the places they took her to. “I read an article about Janis Joplin, and I kept rereading it over and over again,” she says. “It all became about getting to California.” 

***

On the strength of her father’s media connections, D’Angelo did make it to California. Having participated in an art-study program during a subsequent trip to Italy, her father’s pull enabled her to get a job as an inker and painter at the Hanna-Barbera Animation Studio. She downplays her artistic talent; the real point was to be part of the so-called “summer of love.” Burrowing deeper into the counterculture, in the early 1970s, she pulled up stakes and moved to Canada. There, she indulged her lifelong secret wish to become a singer—you know, like Janis Joplin. “If you had a shopping list to check the boxes of who would be a revolutionary, countercultural-living flower child, it would be me,” she says. 

After joining a musicians’ union as (of all things) a castanet player, she found herself singing jazz standards, from 6 until 11 p.m., in a topless bar called the Zanzibar Tavern in Toronto. “I wasn’t topless,” she says. “I sang in a long black dress, in between two girls on these oil drums with the tops cut off and plexiglass with a light that would shoot up and illuminate them as they danced in a G-string.” She adds: “I felt like I was Billie Holiday.” There were better gigs, too. She even sang backup with Ronnie Hawkins. 

D’Angelo actively pursued singing, but she fell into acting. (“I never wanted to be Sarah Bernhardt,” she told? Columbus Monthly ?in 1979.) But, while still abroad, she landed a part in a radio musical about Marilyn Monroe on the CBC, and she toured the provinces as Ophelia in a rock ’n’ roll version of “Hamlet,” first called “Kronborg: 1582” and later retitled “Rockabye Hamlet.” In 1976, just after the show opened on Broadway, D’Angelo told The Columbus Dispatch? that being plucked from obscurity really didn’t surprise her all that much: “It all seemed very logical. I knew I could handle the music.” She says today, “For my mad scene, I strangled myself with a microphone cord and died onstage with fire alarms going off.” 

Casting directors fell for her. Her first movie role came in 1977 with Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” in which she can be glimpsed—and briefly heard—in what amounts to a walk-on. “He gave me my Screen Actors Guild card,” she says. Not long after, Milos Forman, the Czech director recently honored with an Academy Award for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” was casting about for actors to appear in his film version of the hippie-themed musical “Hair.” 

D’Angelo, seemingly made for the part, drew the director’s immediate attention, professionally and otherwise. A dinner date with Forman led to a love affair, which complicated the casting process. “There were more auditions, and even more auditions, because people started to know that I was having an affair,” says D’Angelo, who, overwhelmed, fled to London only to receive a pleading phone call from her boyfriend-director: “He said, ‘I need you,’ and I said, ‘As a girlfriend or as an actress?’ And he said, ‘Just come back—both!’” She came back. She got the role. 

***

Love affairs kept finding her. In 1986, she embarked on a romance with Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”), who, two years later, cast her in the comedy “High Spirits.” Then he wrote a movie for her, 1991’s “The Miracle,” in which she finally had the sort of meaty, juicy, showy, tailored-to-her part her supporters felt was long overdue. She played a woman who travels to an Irish town and bewitches a young local lad … to whom she happens to be related. A Harvey Weinstein-led Miramax bought the film, but according to Peter Biskind’s book “Down and Dirty Pictures,” Jordan thought that Weinstein “dumped” it during release. Besides, D’Angelo feels that her performance was off because her romance with Jordan had ended before shooting began. 

In 1990, she met British production designer Anton Furst, famous for designing the blasted Vietnamese city Hue in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and gothic Gotham City in Tim Burton’s “Batman.” “I fell in love with Anton,” she says, but then he called the relationship off. When D’Angelo was in Texas making a TV miniseries about a black widow serial killer, Furst contacted her again, but the call went badly. The following week, D’Angelo’s best friend, Carrie Fisher, rang to say that Furst had thrown himself off a building and died. She was still shooting the miniseries. “I had to do that with cue cards,” she says. 

Fisher and D’Angelo bonded over their sometimes-fraught personal lives, says Todd Fisher, Carrie’s brother and also D’Angelo’s friend. “Carrie at times would be off balance from something, and Beverly would be in balance at that moment,” Fisher says. “Other times, the other way around. They had a really beautiful sort of way of helping each other always.” Together, his sister and D’Angelo, he says, were “almost like too much flammable material in one space.” 

“I thought that I loved all of these people,” D’Angelo says of her relationships with men. “I did not know what love was until I had kids.” That came in 2001, when, with her then-partner Al Pacino, she had twins Anton and Olivia, soon to turn 20. She is no longer with Pacino. “I observed her many times handling Al,” says Todd Fisher. “He was way out of his league—I mean, literally, she was just too much to handle.” But D’Angelo has called Pacino a close friend and described the four of them as a family unit. She thinks of herself and her son as the more cerebral of the bunch, while Pacino and their daughter “kind of navigate through an emotional force field.” 

Sometime in the late 1990s, the industry started to wise up to D’Angelo’s combustible abilities. She began getting better parts—as the mother of a neo-Nazi in the 1998 drama “American History X” or as the super-agent in the HBO series? Entourage. “She’s still got that same kind of wide-eyed innocence from where I first saw her, which was ‘Vacation’ when I was a kid, but she’s also got that tough side that really worked,” says ?Entourage ?creator Doug Ellin. 

D’Angelo is sanguine about her place in Hollywood. She is familiar with that famous Pauline Kael quote but doesn’t sound sorry about declining to play a game she never signed up for. “Now it’s like, if you’re an actress, you have a perfume line, you have a clothing line,” she says. “If you don’t do that, and you don’t have social media and you don’t do all of that business-oriented part of show business, you’re not responsible.” But D’Angelo wanted to be footloose and fancy-free. 

She’s not the retiring type, though. Unlike her peer Debra Winger, who became elusive and mythologized when plum parts dried up, D’Angelo has kept working, even in projects she knows are, at best, so-so. Not everything can be “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” 

“My real skill was figuring out how to take a bad script and a nothing role and turn it into something that was meaningful to me,” she says. 

Besides, her creativity doesn’t necessarily depend on others. She has written an unpublished novel called “Once Upon a Nanny.” “That was about a woman who gives birth to twins at 49, and at 52, she’s a single mother traversing a crazy landscape,” she says. Publishers, alert to autobiographical resonances, offered to bring it out if she wrote it in the first-person. “Nope—see you later,” came the answer. Now ready for something like a memoir, she hopes that the world will be sufficiently back to normal by 2022 to mount her one-woman show, which she describes as an “embodied memoir” with archival videos and live music. She says she might try it out first in Columbus. 

***

During our first call, D’Angelo tells me she sees the lockdown as a chance to simplify her life. “The first thing I did was get a spaghetti machine,” she says. “You make the dough and you put it through and make the strands. It was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re locked down? Well, better get back to basics.’ What are my basics? It’s homemade—homemade.” 

It turns out “homemade” pretty much describes her, too. “You know what they say: You can either go all around the world to learn everything, or you can stay in one place and you’ll learn everything,” she says. “I’ve kind of done a combo. … The foundation of the community that I was a part of is really the only reason that I have happiness in my life.” 

Not that being the free spirit of the family has been easy. D’Angelo’s mother recognized early on that her daughter was going to do as she pleased. “She made her own way literally, living in Canada with occasional visits with us,” Priscilla said in ?The Dispatch ?in 1976, reflecting on her daughter’s Broadway debut in “Rockabye Hamlet.” “She has, admirably, tended to the specifics of her career, working with her friends and associates of like mind and inclination.” 

The patrician Priscilla’s high-minded turn of phrase (“friends and associates of like mind and inclination”) contrasts sharply with her daughter’s uninhibited style. Yet, rounding the bend toward 70, D’Angelo speaks with honest appreciation of her mother’s life and choices, as well as the buttoned-up town that made her. “I come from a place where honesty matters,” she says. “If you’re a bad person, you don’t get business.” She attends high school reunions, noting that most of her class married each other. 

“I ran away from there, and even bad-mouthed it—it was like part of my rap,” she says. “But that foundation that I got there was responsible for any rock-solidness that I have.” 

After our marathon two hours on the phone, we exchange some more emails and then, in September, we do another half-hour. Like so many others in the movie business, she sounds antsy to get to work. She’s about to act in two new projects. I cram in some random questions, but soon our time is up. She is, as ever, on the move. 

She repeats what I now know is her mantra: “My life has been a series of relationships guided by love. Everything I’ve done is because I’ve loved someone. I gotta go.” 

And we hang up—and D’Angelo is on to yet another new chapter.